Maschera Tragica (Mask of Tragedy)
Emotional truth is at the heart of almost all truly great country songs. There is a very fine line in country music between the true tearjerkers, for which the genre is justly known, and the cloying sentimentality which outsiders sometimes ascribe to the music. Not, I have to admit, always completely unfairly – if the strings are too obvious, the emotion feels forced, and the song just doesn’t work. But as I said, the line is a fine one, and a song’s impact depends on a number of factors.
Country music does not consist solely of confessional singer-songwriters, and we do not expect every song recorded to be a personal slice of the author’s life – certainly not when it comes to a love song or cheating song. However, when we are aware a song draws on its writer’s experiences, I think we are more disposed to respond to them as “real”. If a love song is said to be for its writer’s spouse, and the marriage subsequently breaks up (as, for instance, with Vince Gill’s ‘I Still Believe In You’, written for first wife Janis Gill before he left her for another woman), the song may suddenly seem emotionally dishonest in retrospect, purely because the listener has bought into the story behind the song. In the case of a song specifically designed to elicit an emotional response, this authenticity is all the more important.
There is a line in the Mavericks’ song ‘Children’ which refers to “a life where everything’s real and nothing is true”. I do not believe a song has to be factually real to convey emotional truth, but it does help to dispel accusations of sentimentality. An example of this would be Tammy Cochran’s ‘Angels In Waiting’. This tribute to Tammy’s two brothers, who both died young as a result of cystic fibrosis, would be cloying if the song were an invented one. It probably wouldn’t even work if it were sung by an unconnected singer, even though it was written from the heart and is a well-constructed song. Here it is almost completely the fact that it is the true story of the person singing it which carries the emotional force of the song.
Another instance is Jimmy Wayne, whose first self-titled album was filled with intensely emotional songs inspired by his childhood. These songs — the hits ‘I Love You This Much’ and ‘Paper Angels’, and other less-known numbers on similar themes — would undoubtedly fall in the emotionally manipulative category if they were not genuinely based on Jimmy’s appalling childhood in foster-care. That lends an emotional truth which is not found in the same singer’s love songs which are forgettable. American Idol finalist Kellie Pickler is frankly not a very good singer, but her song ‘I Wonder’, about the mother who abandoned her in childhood, has an emotional resonance, which is lacking in her other material, and is genuinely moving — as long as you know the story behind it is true. I don’t think it stands on its own merits.
But basing a song on a true story does not guarantee that it will work. Occasionally a song will be just too personal, so that the listener feels they are trespassing on something private. The songwriter’s job is to turn the personal into the universal. An honorable failure here might be Chely Wright’s ‘The River’, a very downbeat and hookless story about two former classmates of hers who drowned in different incidents; for me the undeniably true story ends up sounding depressing without being truly involving.
In other cases, a song born out of its writer’s story can still be movingly conveyed as long as the singer is good enough. A happier song of this kind is Brad Paisley’s early hit, ‘He Didn’t Have To Be’, a touching tribute to a beloved stepfather. A certain resonance is given to this song simply knowing that it was based on the life of Brad’s co-writer Kelley Lovelace, and may explain why it is one of Brad’s most emotionally effective recordings.
Mark Wills’ melodramatic anti-bullying song from the 90s, ‘Don’t Laugh At Me’, was earnest and well-meaning, and actually not altogether a bad song. But it doesn’t work for me because Wills’ voice is thin and lacks the emotional conviction it needs. He comes across as ridiculously self-regarding. Here is an example of the song which some find artificial, but in which others find a real resonance. The listener’s response is governed partly by his or her own situation, as much as by the song itself, and even bad art can touch people given the right circumstances. If emotions have been artificially manipulated, that does not in itself make the actual feelings any less real.
Over the years, Martina McBride has become a little too fond of the kind of message song which tries far too hard to make you cry. Her upcoming release Shine includes a rather unconvincing story about an abused daughter she calls ‘Wild Rebel Rose’; this fails to move me any more than the horribly sentimentalised story of ‘God’s Will’, although it is not quite as obviously fake as the latter. I don’t believe in either one of these characters as real people, so I don’t really care about them either. I don’t really believe in the story in Sherrie Austin’s minor hit from 2003, ‘Streets Of Heaven’, either, but the song works as a guilty pleasure because of the combination of the passionate intensity of Austin’s vocal delivery and the way the lyric is structured around the central metaphor. Songs about sick, dying and abused children are perhaps the most likely to come across as deliberately contrived — this may be in part because one feels an attempt to criticise them on artistic grounds may sound harsh.
A great vocal performance and a beautifully written song may overcome any accusations of falsity because they are emotionally truthful, even if clearly fictional, tales. Just a few examples are Trisha Yearwood’s version of Rebecca Lynn Howard’s ‘Melancholy Blue’; LeAnn Rimes’ greatest recording, ‘Probably Wouldn’t Feel This Way’; ‘She’s Still There’, an obscure album track from Trace Adkins about a former highschool girlfriend who died young. Also the story of Randy Travis’ last hit, ‘Three Wooden Crosses’; and, of course, George Jones’ ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ (one of the greatest records ever made).
Songs of tragedy form an enormous part of the heritage of country music. Some older songs of this kind can sound very dated today. In some respects, I find these more palatable than a contemporary take on similar subject matter. Partly, this is because I can look at them as period pieces and appreciate them on another level, as a reflection of previous generations’ lives. They do usually seem sincere, and that comes across in the vocal.
Another aspect of the tearjerker which divides the dishonest emotion-getter from the true one, is the way the song is structured. An understated lyric, where the listener’s tears are prompted as the story or situation develops naturally, is much more effective than the one in which we are beaten over the head with how tragic it all is all the way through the song. Overdoing it somehow makes artifice and sentimentality, all the more obvious.
There is an enormous gulf between two songs about fallen soldiers — Carrie Underwood’s big hit ‘Just A Dream’, and the Bruce Robison song, ‘Travelin’ Soldier’ best known in the version by the Dixie Chicks. The former is intense, yes, but very theatrical, and one does feel positively assaulted by the message. This is in large part due to the overbearing production; the song would have had more emotional impact if it didn’t try so hard. ‘Travelin’ Soldier’ takes a much more subtle approach. And although the death is the point of the song, its impact is all the greater because for much of the song, the young soldier is alive and expecting to come home. The story builds up the characters slowly enough for us to develop an emotional connection, so that we too feel sadness when the girl hears the news of her almost-lover’s death.
Not spelling out the details enables the listener to fill in the blanks with what has emotional resonance for him or her. It is that space which I think allows a genuine emotional response rather than a forced one — the sense where we feel we are supposed to feel the way the songwriter wants us to feel. That is when I feel manipulated into sentiment, and resent it. There are songs where I have this reaction, but it is clear that they do have a real effect on others. For instance, Kathy Mattea’s big 1980s hit, ‘Where’ve You Been’, is widely admired, but I feel it is telling me what I should be feeling. It may be that this is a song whose impact on me will be delayed until I have to deal with similar issues in my own life — but a really great song does not have to be personally relevant for me to feel that it is.
The only song recorded by Andy Griggs which has ever moved me is Gretchen Peters’ beautiful ‘If Heaven’. This song is effective because the misery is not unrelieved. The lyric builds from the initial positive, happy images of heaven to bringing in loss and bereavement subtly with the metaphor in the second verse of heaven as “a summer day in 1985/When everyone I loved was still alive“, and then making it clear in the chorus that the narrator also is dying, but still has a positive element. It’s about longing as much as it is about loss, and the mixture of emotions feels much more real because it is not simplified. Another song which conveys loss subtly, and allows us to share it, is Carolyn Dawn Johnson’s ‘Room With A View’, from her album of the same title. The emotional intensity of the song rests not in the low-key verses about the loved one’s illness, but as the chorus swells with the change of the “room with a view” of the title from the top-floor hospital room to heaven.
Teenager Blaine Larsen had a minor hit in 2005 with ‘How Do You Get That Lonely’, a song about a fellow-teen’s suicide (written by Rory Feek of Joey + Rory fame with Nashville writer Jamie Teachenor). What makes this song genuinely tear-inducing for me is not that the boy died, but rather that no one in his life was even aware he was unhappy (the chorus runs ‘how do you get that lonely, and nobody know’). This seems to me to be the heart of ths song’s meaning. Perhaps this has a greater impact for me because my father volunteers for a charity which provides listeners for the potentially suicidal, and although I don’t know the details of the people he talks to, I know they have no one else in their lives to turn to over their depression. This means that the situation in the song feels very realistic to me. Another song by the same writing team, with the addition of Rory’s wife Joey, ‘To Say Goodbye’, recorded on Joey + Rory’s album The Life Of A Song, works emotionally in the same way. Here the tragedy is not so much death as the bereft person’s loss of a chance to take leave. This approach has more of a chance of being emotionally affecting because it looks at a different aspect of loss.
What songs do you find emotionally true or false?